Sophocles is synonymous to ancient Greek tragedy and was a contemporary of the elder Aeschylus and the younger Euripides. He was born in Colonus near Athens and his proficiency in music, dancing and gymnastics enabled him to take part in the festivities of the Greek victory over the Persians at Salamis. As a popular personality of his time he was intimate with Herodotus and also regularly took part in the political and religious manifestations of Athens ; nevertheless his works were devoid of any such influence. He distinguished himself with an extraordinary output of plays but only seven popular tragedies survived intact, obviously because they were chosen for school use in later antiquity. His lifespan coincided with the Golden Age of the Greek world and his longevity allowed him to enjoy Athens’ artistic, intellectual and political glory and he died in 406 before his city’s fall to the Spartans.
His works and his legacy
Sophocles’ notoriety and fame survive through the ages for his contribution to the Greek drama and theater and Aristotle in his “Poetics” esteemed Sophocles and acclaimed his “Oedipus at Colonus” as the masterpiece and a classic of Greek tragedy. Sophocles innovated Greek drama by adding a third speaking character to the traditional two while simultaneously enlarging the Chorus and including an introduction of a painted scenery. The presentation of the third actor in his plays was a turning point in the theater of the time and its importance was such that it was even adopted by his contemporary Aeschylus for it enlarged the opportunities of dramatic intrigue in the plot. Like his contemporaries, Sophocles was also inspired and influenced by the great myths of gods and goddesses and the epic stories of eminent warlords who fought and won great battles. Sophocles seven surviving plays were based on the tragedies that befell the kingdom of Thebes and the heroes of the Homeric Illiad. While the context of Aeschylus’ trilogies were interconnected with the themes of each play more as a succession and a continuity of the same plot and action, Sophocles’ three tragedies were not correlated for they were developed from different cycles of myth and not written in order.
In his works Sophocles’ characters always behaved under psychological stress for his heroes consistently endured a succession of tests that they had to overcome. Unlike his elder contemporary Aeschylus , he was more involved with the individual’s reactions to problems and his dramatic dimension lay in his analysis of the human mind and character and the fate of “big” men as Oedipus. He also exposed the strife between man and society and revealed how society can repudiate an individual when not needed. In his plays Sophocles also set down the individual’s devotion to family and state and illustrated the difficult situation of the character when the person hurts a loved one. The rich and complex portrayal of man’s ability to survive unbearable suffering in his Oedipus King and the tragic but noble death that purges the country in his last play Oedipus at Colonus were as grandiose as Homer’s epics. Consequently Sophocles’ Greek hero in its proper sense is not flawless but his faults and his virtues are inherent and inseparable which enabled him to become a hero and a man worthy of commemoration after his fateful death.